The joy is still within

I went for a long time in life without remembering my dreams, a condition consistent with a waking memory punched through with large gaps. For most of my adult life, I remembered only the occasional pulse-knocking nightmare powerful enough to jolt me awake in terror. Fun!

I dreamed more when I was young. At ten years old, I had a dream that was so powerful, I remember its central figure to this day—a spindly, glittering, impossibly tall creature of ageless magic, towering on a swaying bridge above me at the end of a long adventure. I get the sense we’ll meet again.

Yet recently, at the ass end of 44 years old, I’m starting to remember my dreams again. It started about three months ago, long after the well-documented wave of pandemic dreams began. Maybe it’s the therapeutic body pillow my old body demanded and I finally purchased. Maybe it’s those George Smiley books I keep reading, so wonderfully ahead of and yet painfully stuck in their time, crammed with such beguiling narrative complexity that my dreams have finally been given the language they required to unfold.

Maybe it’s the therapy.

Some are nothing but the scrapped together refuse of my waking mind, bits of nonsense in a collage that fade like sparks above a fire into thin wafers of ash that float away to unknown ends. A few have been kinda hot? I’ve had stress dreams about an inept crew of hired hands trying to kidnap me and my elderly father from his apartment because of his debts, and my tortured arguments to convince them to let us go free. I’ve had intricate and bizarre dreams about rediscovering vibrants neighborhoods in New York that correspond to no waking street, while running away the dire consequences of insulting the Queen’s favorite courtier. It’s been quite the ride. But this morning’s dream was different.

Campers in the woods, long ago.

First there was the usual complicated and nonsensical lead-up. A theatre filled with people at a fundraising event. A complicated demand, a missing wallet, spies at every turn, and then in the way dreams go, I was in a rainy parking lot, and a couple I knew from summer camp was unloading an absolute mountain of stuff into a hotel. They were their adult selves, surrounded by and kids and gear and obligations and they looked stressed.

I yelled across the parking lot, “How can I help?”

They yelled at me to find a pair of two-pound weights that had gone missing in their car. It was the wonderfully casual way you yell at people you haven’t seen for more than a decade, but with whom you can immediately pick up where you left off. The weights, of course, had rolled under the seats.

Shortly after that, we were all in a skoolie. Have you seen skoolies lately? They are magnificent. A skoolie is a big yellow school bus that has been converted into recreational vehicle. It is a home, an escape, a fully designed expression of its owners longings. This skoolie was crowded to the gills with camp trunks, and rusted farm equipment and so many people they could hardly move. The bus was moving fast on a familiar country road in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania. No one was in the driver’s seat, but the owner of the skoolie, the man half of the camp couple was asleep on a bench directly behind the drivers seat with an odd contraption on his face. He was driving the bus in an eighties version of VR. Sure.

I was in a fat leather straight-from-the-eighties seat to the right of the empty drivers seat. So I had the best view of the moment when we turned left and the skoolie began huffing and puffing up the hill to our summer camp, unaffected by torrents of rain, passenger load or dubious brakes.

The skoolie stopped in front of the large field where we all played camp-wide games like Prisoners Base. The doors opened. I got up and looked behind me and saw eager friends and my first camp director, her wrinkled face beaming — a rarity in her professional context. And I did something in the dream that I would never, and now could never, do in real life. I ran down the stairs and flung myself on my knees into the wet grass.

I slid a heroic distance distance through the grass, arms upraised, like a fútbol player who’s just made the winning goal. And I slid right into the arms of my best friend from camp, and we hugged for what seemed like an eternity. And then my other best friend ran up, and she didn’t get down on the ground because she didn’t want her crisp skinny jeans to get dirty, but tears were streaming down her face and I knew she was hugging us too. And all around us, the same types of reunions were unfolding, the collective joy radiating up from the wet morning field like sunshine burning through mist.

The silly staff picture.

I woke up back into the same life, this endless slog through time, the same middle-aged shoulder pain, the same insistent meowing of the big black cat at the end of the bed who doesn’t understand why we have to hide his food in the oven at night because if we don’t a determined mouse will eat it all and grow to the size of a kaiju.

But this morning I brought something back with me from the dream, something I’d not felt for two long years. It was the intense glow of communal joy; the kind that fills your body with giddy euphoria folded in with contentment and peace, the way you carefully fold stiff yet fragile egg whites into a sweet batter. It was a communal joy that radiated upward from an entire field of people singing, hugging, laughing and crying in the rain and carried me into a crisp November morning with a profoundly genuine smile. I carry that joy with me still, as I write these words, and I hope to carry it further.

Already the day feels shinier, and my worries seem more like tasks to check off rather than sludgy impediments. And even though I’ve known it logically for some time, my whole heart and body now understand that we went straight from the era of pandemic terror, filled with zoom church and zoom weddings and zoom funerals to not even bothering with funerals because there was so much attention to death everywhere else. It was two years of televised concerts and make-do life events, and never-ending work or the terror of no work at all. And now we live in a muddled and uncertain present of elbow bumps and masked hugs competing with defiant insurrections; breakthrough illness and endless digital screaming about masks, vaccines and just about everything else. Regardless of the facts on the ground, or your facts versus my facts, one thing feels true—it is more difficult than ever to feel communal joy and connection.

Even when I get up the courage to go to restaurants, concerts or amusement parks, I so often feel the echo of past joy, rather than its present tense. I went to Disneyland and it felt like a creaky memory, my feet burning as I diligently trudged from one magical land to the next. Then I got a bruiser of cold, or maybe worse. I didn’t bother to find out. I just stayed home and coughed.

My summer camp was Quaker, I was nominally Jewish, but really not much of anything. It was at camp that I learned to sit in reflective silence in a grove of trees or in a huge wooden barn with rain pounding on the roof during meeting for worship every Wednesday and Sunday morning. Communal silence—when have we last had that? At Quaker meeting for worship, or at least the ones I attended, you are welcome to stand at any point and share what you’re feeling. At camp I never did, too self-conscious, unable to put in to words the love for my camp and the people whose energy gave it so much power over my life, awake or otherwise.

So this Sunday morning, as I lie here in bed, radiating a joy I’ve not felt since at least December 20, 2019, and in its most powerful form not since long long ago—I want to give thanks. I’m profoundly and eternally grateful to my summer camp and the friends I made there, where together we planted a tiny seed of powerful joy that slumbered for decades deep within my mind, through long years where camp was remembered as a blurry photograph, a quick flash of an embarrassing memory, or a vague longing for something lost. That seed, that joy, was growing unwatered and untended, through all these long years of distance from home in the red dirt fed by the creeks and streams that run down the Delaware River, helping us through the terrible loss of those of us who were far too young, and all the other pain that life serves us at will.

I suppose this essay should end. I should get up and do all the things. But in the way that we cling to dreams even as they dissipate in the morning light, I want to take one last moment to remember my dream of a wonderful place that still exists. A dream that has reminded me, without question, that the joy is still within.

All children should get their chance to build this deep reserve of joy, regardless of economic circumstance. If you agree, and you are able, please donate to The Fresh Air Fund.

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Jennie Josephson

Jennie Josephson

Stories told in audio form, but words are my first love.